When Can a Court Set Aside a Final Judgment?
“A trial court’s authority to modify, amend, or vacate an order or final judgment after rendition of the final judgment is limited to the time and manner provided by rule or statute. Francisco v. Victoria Marine Shipping, Inc., 486 So. 2d 1386, 1388-89 (Fla. 3d DCA 1986) (citing Shelby Mut. Ins. Co. v. Pearson, 236 So. 2d 1 (Fla. 1970)).” Mocegui v. Pub. Serv. Mut. Ins. Co., 821 So. 2d 1189, 1191-92 (Fla. 3d DCA 2002).
Rule 1.540(b), Florida Rules of Civil Procedure provides that a Final Judgment may be set aside for mistakes, inadvertence, excusable neglect, newly discovered evidence, fraud, etc. However, the rule also states that the motion shall be filed within a reasonable time, and not more than 1 year after the judgment, decree, order, or proceeding was entered or taken. In other words, the finality of a final judgment may not be disturbed after a one-year period absent certain circumstances. The appellate courts have typically strictly upheld this notion to preserve the finality of judgments and prevent never ending litigation.
In Wright v. Scott, 658 So. 2d 1215 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995), “Ronald L. Wright appeal[ed] a final summary judgment adding him, individually, to a final judgment obtained by appellee, Marcus Bernard Scott, several years earlier. However, Scott’s motion to correct the final judgment, which was made pursuant to Florida Rule of Civil Procedure 1.540(b), was filed more than two years after entry of the initial final judgment, and nearly 18 months after entry of the last amended final judgment. Therefore, the trial court was without jurisdiction to amend the final judgment by adding Wright, because more than one year had passed since entry of the last amended final judgment. Kippy Corp. v. Colburn, 177 So. 2d 193 (Fla. 1965); Hartley v. Andriuli, 595 So. 2d 311 (Fla. 2d DCA 1992); St. Cloud Utilities v. Moore, 410 So. 2d 973 (Fla. 5th DCA 1982); Avant v. Waites, 295 So. 2d 362 (Fla. 1st DCA 1974). Even though Wright failed to raise this error below, it is fundamental error which can be raised for the first time on appeal. Sanford v. Rubin, 237 So. 2d 134 (Fla. 1970); Love v. Hannah, 72 So. 2d 39 (Fla. 1954); Hadley v. Hadley, 140 So. 2d 326 (Fla. 3d DCA 1962).” Wright v. Scott, 658 So. 2d 1215 (Fla. 1st DCA 1995).
Additionally, in Cornelius v. Holzman, 193 So. 3d 1029 (Fla. 4th DCA 2016), the Fourth District Court of Appeal held that the lender could not amend its Final Judgment to correct an incorrect legal description when a year had elapsed from the date of the Final Judgment. The Fourth District held that “the trial court lacked jurisdiction to hear the amended motion to amend the final judgment because it was filed more than one year after rendition of the final judgment and no exceptions apply.” Id. at 1032.
Rule 1.540(b)(5) provides a limited exception to the time limitation if “it is no longer equitable that the judgment or decree should have prospective application.”” “Like federal rule 60(b)(5), this rule provides “extraordinary relief” reserved for “exceptional circumstances”; it requires the trial judge to strike the “delicate balance” between the sanctity of final judgments and the need for ongoing or executory equitable remedies to remain equitable. See Zang, 248 F.3d at 5; Twelve John Does v. District of Columbia, 268 U.S. App. D.C. 308, 841 F.2d 1133, 1138 (D.C. Cir. 1988). This ground does not allow a party to retry a case merely because the judgment provides equitable relief and the party has found additional evidence. Instead, the rule requires the movant to establish that significant new evidence or substantial changes in circumstances arising after the entry of the judgment make it “no longer equitable” for the trial court to enforce its earlier order.” Schindler v. Schiavo (In re Schiavo), 792 So. 2d 551, 559-60 (Fla. 2d DCA 2001).
If the court modifies, amends, or vacates a final judgment after the one year period and without a finding of exceptional circumstances, the court is acting outside of its jurisdiction and any such orders are void. An order entered without subject-matter jurisdiction can be attacked at any time because a lack of subject-matter jurisdiction goes to the foundation of the court’s power to adjudicate the case presented. Arquette v. Rutter, 150 So. 3d 1259, 1261 (Fla. 5th DCA 2014).” U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n v. Anthony-Irish, 204 So. 3d 57, 60 (Fla. 5th DCA 2016).
In short, a trial court may amend or modify a final judgment within the one year period after its entry. However, if there is a finding of exceptional circumstances, the court may be able to modify the final judgment after the one year period expires.